Desecration of graves

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Desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Bielsko-Biała, Poland, June 2021

Desecration of graves involves intentional acts of vandalism, theft or destruction in places where humans are interred: this includes body snatching. It has long been considered taboo to desecrate or otherwise violate graves or grave markers of the deceased, and in modern times it has been prohibited by law. Desecration is defined as violating something that is sacred.[1]



One form of grave desecration is grave robbery. In Egypt many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were robbed and looted of valuables. Papyrus scrolls from 2000 BC detail accounts of looting. The accounts also spell out the punishment that thieves received. The sentence varied from the removal of the thief's ears or nose. One punishment was execution.[2]

In China the 2nd century text Lüshi Chunqiu advised mourners to plan simple burials to discourage looting.[3] Many Chinese were buried with valuables, including jade burial suits.[4] In modern China, grave robbing continues.[3]

Body snatching[edit]

Illegal body snatching from graves provided cadavers for sale to medical schools for dissection during anatomy demonstrations. Because of the taboo and theft of corpses the dissection of corpses was often carried out in secret.[5] Body snatching was practiced by resurrectionists in the United Kingdom until the Anatomy Act 1832. In the United States the practice fed into the myth of Night Doctors. Many cemeteries installed gates and fences.


Desecration of a grave in Bethlehem; The graffiti says "death to the Arabs" (מוות לערבים, mavet laArabim)

Graves have historically been the target for vandalism desecration. In the mid-1850s, the villagers of Silwan were paid £100 annually by the Jews in an effort to prevent the desecration of graves on the Mount of Olives.[6]

In modern times people continue desecrating grave sites.[7] Occasionally the vandalism-desecration is religiously motivated. Jewish cemeteries are occasionally targets for vandalism.[8]

In some cases the desecration is racially motivated, like in the 2004 case of two white teens who desecrated the grave of James Byrd, Jr (a black man who was dragged to death) in Jasper, Texas. The teens were charged with criminal mischief after scrawling profanities on a steel plate and knocking over his grave marker.[9]

Grave reuse[edit]

The United Kingdom Parliament passed the Burial Act 1857. Concerns arose that due to rapidly expanding cities because of the industrial revolution, burial graves were reused too quickly.[10] The offense of disturbing a burial included in the Burial Act 1857 was based on the belief that a grave was to be undisturbed for eternity.[10][11] Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857 made it unlawful in England and Wales to disturb human burials without a license or on ground consecrated by the rites of the Church of England, without the permission of the church.[12]

Cemetery relocation[edit]

Cemeteries may also be moved so that the land can be reused for transportation structures.[13] In some countries it is forbidden to move a cemetery. In Alberta, Canada, for instance, the Cemetery Act expressly forbids the relocation of cemeteries or the mass exhumation of marked graves for any reason whatsoever.[14]

Urinating on someone's grave[edit]

As a form of great disrespect to the dead, a person urinates on the decedent's grave.[15] In 17th century Churchyard-Väki tradition One was expected to proceed with quiet reverence in a cemetery. According to Väki folklore people could be punished by "angered beings" or "fall sick" for simply urinating in a graveyard.[16]


In many cases it is against the law to deface or desecrate grave sites or human remains. These include removing gravestones, leaving trash, disturbing, or tampering with a gravesite. People are also not allowed to open any repository of human remains or cover over or destroy. In many cases these are felonies.[17] For instance NY Penal Law § 145.23: Cemetery desecration involves attempts to: vandalize, spray paint, or steal from places that are used for human interment.[18]

According to United States legal case Dangerfield v. Williams, 26 App. D.C. 508 (D.C. Cir. 1906) as long as people recognize that an area serves as a graveyard it remains a sacred place, even if there are no new burials and the graves are neglected.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "desecrate". Merriam Webster's. Merriam Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Archived from the original on 8 December 2021. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  2. ^ Tutankhamun : Egypt's Boy Pharaoh. Bruxelles, Belgique: 50 Minutes. 2015. ISBN 978-2808007382. Archived from the original on 26 February 2022. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  3. ^ a b Qin, Amy (July 15, 2017). "Tomb Robbing, Perilous but Alluring, Makes Comeback in China". New York Times. Archived from the original on December 7, 2021. Retrieved December 7, 2021.
  4. ^ Paul van Els (2018). The Wenzi: Creativity and Intertextuality in Early Chinese Philosophy. Studies in the History of Chinese Texts. Brill. p. 12.
  5. ^ "Body Snatchers". National Archives. The National Archives. Archived from the original on 7 December 2021. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  6. ^ Menashe Har-El (2004). Golden Jerusalem. Gefen Publishing House Ltd. p. 244. ISBN 978-9652292544. Archived from the original on 2021-12-07. Retrieved 2021-12-07.
  7. ^ Kepley-Steward, Kristy (4 March 2019). "Update: Graham County cemetery vandalism suspect arrested, charged". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 7 December 2021. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  8. ^ Reich, Aaron (13 July 2020). "Dozens of graves in Europe's oldest Jewish cemetery vandalized, desecrated". Jpost Inc. Archived from the original on 7 December 2021. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  9. ^ "State briefs: White Teens Charged in Grave Desecration". Chron. 12 May 2004. Archived from the original on 9 January 2022. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  10. ^ a b Edemariam, Aida (17 May 2011). "The nation's cemeteries are nearly full". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 22 May 2018. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  11. ^ Woodthorpe, Kate (2010). "Private Grief in Public Spaces. Interpreting Memorialisation in the Contemporary Cemetery". In Hockey, Jennifer Lorna; Komaromy, Carol; Woodthorpe, Kate (eds.). The matter of death : space, place and materiality. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 117–132. ISBN 978-0230224162. OCLC 620092674.
  12. ^ Fairbairn, C (2017). "Reuse of Graves. House of Commons Briefing Paper 04060" (PDF). House of Commons. Archived (PDF) from the original on 18 June 2017. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  13. ^ "O'Hare Growth May Mean Moving a Cemetery". Archived 2021-12-07 at the Wayback Machine NPR, November 19, 2005. Accessed July 13, 2009.
  14. ^ "Cemetery Act of Alberta. Accessed July 13, 2009". Archived from the original on January 6, 2019. Retrieved December 7, 2021.
  15. ^ Gantt, Darin (24 July 2014). "Modell family wants to press charges against grave urinator". Pro football Talk. Archived from the original on 6 December 2021. Retrieved 6 December 2021.
  16. ^ Pocs, Eva (2019). Body, soul, spirits and supernatural communication. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 180–181. ISBN 978-1527522312. Archived from the original on 26 February 2022. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  17. ^ "Chapter 92: Cemeteries". Code Library. American Legal Publishing. Archived from the original on 9 December 2021. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  18. ^ "New York Consolidated Laws, Penal Law – PEN § 145.23 Cemetery desecration in the first degree". Codes Find Law. Thomson Reuters. Archived from the original on 7 December 2021. Retrieved 7 December 2021.

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